PITTSBURGH – Our last view of Bob Huggins was from the rear, as he trundled his way up the tunnel at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City in 2003, a killjoy ejected from another giddy Gonzaga party during March Madness.
A funny thing’s happened between then and now – today’s date between his West Virginia Mountaineers and the Bulldogs in the NCAA basketball tournament second round.
The Coach Ironically Known as Huggs has somehow evolved from the wanted-poster boy of college basketball’s dark side to crusty elder statesman with a flinty exterior but a heart of gold.
Now, it’s altogether probable that Huggins himself hasn’t changed a bit, and certainly he still has that suspicious look – he could pass for Joey Morolto in the movie “The Firm.” And then there’s his standard reaction when asked about his public image:
“I honestly don’t care,” he mumbles.
But perceptions change. Maybe it started in 2007 when Huggins lunged for the opportunity to return home to coach at West Virginia, where he fits as easily into the hardscrabble culture as he does into one of his trademark sweatsuits. Two years ago he took the Mountaineers to the Final Four, their first such visit since Jerry West shot them to within a point of the national championship in 1959. That was certainly a good enough story nationally to earn Huggins some merit-badge points, and his loyal coterie of underlings, ex-players and colleagues have woven an agreeable narrative suggesting that at the very least, the Huggs has been misinterpreted over the years.
“Everyone always talks about this tough love, thick skin,” said Kansas State coach Frank Martin, a former Huggins assistant. “When is the last time you saw a former Bob Huggins player criticize him? All they do is go out in society and become better people.”
Well, he hasn’t reached them all. But he probably doesn’t see himself as Father Flanagan, either.
“I think he’s one of the real characters left in college basketball,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who counts Huggins as a friend, “that just isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind.”
Here’s one of the things that was on his mind Wednesday:
“There’s still characters,” he told the media assembled for the NCAA second round at Consol Energy Center. “They just do it behind closed doors now. There’s guys that are funny and have a lot of fun. You can’t do things as public as what guys used to do. Social media.
“Not even blaming you this time – it’s ‘social’ media.”
Appreciate it, Huggs.
Social media would have exploded the last time Few and Huggins hooked up. He was at Cincinnati then, trailing the Zags by seven points with 16 minutes to play in an NCAA first-rounder. When Kareem Johnson was stripped of the ball and no whistle sounded, Huggins went berserk, and referee Olandis Poole hit him with back-to-back technicals.
Shortly thereafter, Cincinnati radio color man Chuck Machock – a Huggins crony – got the heave-ho from press row for giving Poole more guff.
Today’s Huggins might have a colorful line about that episode, but he was grumpily tight-lipped then, so it was left to Few:
“That reminds me of a (radio) guy who used to do our games,” he said, referencing the late Dick Wright. “I could see him getting tossed back in the day.”
The Few-Huggins friendship is interesting if for no other reason than the disparate styles of the teams they coach. Even as Gonzaga has developed into a better defensive program with some true bangers, “rugged” is a descriptive rarely applied to the Zags.
“Felony assault” is a descriptive often applied to Huggins teams, and we’re talking on-court descriptives here.
OK, and sometimes off. The Cincinnati teams included a few desperados, and despite their success eventually earned Huggins rips for indifference to academics and a graduation rate lower than opponents’ field-goal percentage. The massive heart attack Huggins suffered – at a rental car counter here at the Pittsburgh airport in 2002 – and subsequent recovery made him a more sympathetic figure, but two years later he was nailed with an embarrassing DUI and not long thereafter was let go by president Nancy Zimpher.
He still takes player risks – there’s been a significant exodus of players from his WVU program in recent years. But, then, there’s been a significant exodus at Gonzaga.
If Huggins has changed, the changes have been subtle – perhaps the only subtle thing about the man.
“Every day is like an army camp,” reported junior forward Deniz Kilicli. “You go in there knowing you’re going to get your butt chewed.”
In the meantime, guard Darryl Bryant contended that a roster of nine freshmen has forced Huggins to be “a lot more patient than he was with me and (leading scorer Kevin Jones). We think Coach is getting old.”
Maybe. It’s a lot of work living up to a nickname like Huggs.